interview BILL POWERS
polaroids by TERRY RICHARDSON
Living back on his grandfather’s Pennsylvania farm, JEFF KOONS continues to tap into America’s collective consciousness, replicating its revolutionary icons, The Liberty Bell and The Civil War’s Dictator Cannon. In response to what he considered excessive praise,the playwright Harold Pinter cautioned not to make “too much of a meal.” When confronting the work of Jeff Koons, however, the temptation to make Play-Doh mountains out of pixelated molehills, so to speak, is considerable. But we did our best to control ourselves.
BILL POWERS — Why did you incorporate the Liberty Bell into your latest series of paintings?
JEFF KOONS — I was thinking of Dali’s Alice in Wonderland. The Liberty Bell has a feminine form even though the texture of the chipped bronze is masculine. I like the idea that it represents a shared cultural history and that it explores the meaning of authorship. A lot of people worked on the bell and so much has happened to it over the years, including being melted down and recast at least twice because of flaws in the material. The yoke alone has also gone through many changes.
BILL POWERS — Was it difficult to depict the bell’s history—its age spots—in a painting?
JEFF KOONS — I can spend weeks constructing the image—trying one RGB this way or that, adding magenta here or there. When that’s done the image is broken down into its different components on a color table. Hundreds of colors are mixed in advance. The bell has 388 colors. Each one of these has a swatch number and is tubed so that when the painter comes to work on a section it’s not subjective. It’s already been approved. Then the only thing I have to check up on is the texture, that the paint is being applied in the correct manner.
BILL POWERS — You had your three-year-old son Kurt paint a giant swish across the front of one piece. What was it like having him involved?
JEFF KOONS — My son Sean did one too. The boys’ gestures are so pure; so much freer in their aesthetics than I could be. There’s no reason for me to try and make a freer gesture, it’s already as free as it gets. I’ve also used some of Sean’s toys in the paintings, like these monster heads. I believe that monster heads are symbols of subjective art. Symbols of the scars everyone has inside them, the things in our past. Little monsters that you have to accept in order to transcend into objective art. It’s all about the acceptance of others. At the end of the day, everything—a soup can, a urinal, a basketball in a tank, a vacuum cleaner—is all externalized objects that are really just metaphors for accepting others.
BILL POWERS — What was it like doing Andy Warhol’s voice for the Rick Burn’s documentary?
JEFF KOONS — I was honored to work with Rick. He would have me read the lines several times, trying our best to get it as interesting as we could. But Rick didn’t want me to mimic Andy. He said the reason he chose me was that my voice is sort of unique and that Andy had a uniqueness to his voice. So that was the bridge. The one thing he did ask is that I speak with a somewhat higher voice because when you speak like that it tends to be more dream-like.
BILL POWERS — A lot of the background imagery in your recent work, like this picture of Led Zeppelin, is so blown out that unless you told me what it was I’d just think it was a field of dots.
JEFF KOONS — I don’t expect people to see Robert Plant and Jimmy Page but to pick up on their kind of youthful energy. The dots I use make me think of Sigmar Polke and Georges Seurat and Roy Lichtenstein and Damien Hirst. It’s a way of connecting with other artists. It’s a dialogue. Using other artists’ vocabulary is like stringing popcorn on a thread—a way of connecting with humanity.
BILL POWERS — Did some of the new paintings start off as photographs?
JEFF KOONS — There’s a landscape painting of a tree based on a photo I took in Central Park. It has that same swish but in a Twombly-esque blue. Then I did a drawing of rocks at the bottom near the tree roots and drew in foliage wrapped around the tree. A sort of reference to Illona’s Asshole, my painting from the Made in Heaven series.
BILL POWERS — The gestures your sons made and the image of The Hulk recur in several of the paintings.
JEFF KOONS — The swishes are serial imagery. They allude to excessive power. I’m only making maybe four Hulk-Elvis paintings, a couple of Monkey Trains, and two Geishas here. But there’s the feeling that there could be a whole lot more that you don’t see.
BILL POWERS — What is it about the geisha image that you respond to?
JEFF KOONS — Well, there’s a sexual significance to it. But in general, I didn’t want the paintings to come off as too masculine. I tried to counterbalance all this testosterone. I wanted to make works that are very global, and culturally vast and wide.
BILL POWERS — I want to talk about the siege cannon you’re working on. Tell me about the photograph of the original cannon.
JEFF KOONS — It’s a 1863 photograph of The Dictator cannon. There is no way to actually reproduce an object like this, or to even know what it was really like, because it’s gone. We’ve lost it. We do know how much it weighed though. I’m trying to track down the exact casting number. It was one of the most powerful cannons ever produced and was important in the Battle of Vicksburg and the Battle of Petersburg. When you look an image of it, it almost appears as if it’s been castrated because of how it’s cut. But when you’re around it, it’s so powerful. So there’s a contradiction there. It has an amazing visceral quality. It took twenty-two pounds of black gunpowder—a huge amount—to fire off a thirteen-inch cannonball. It reminds me of the piece I did called Bear and Policeman which was about how artists should use the tools of art to communicate, and the moral responsibility that goes along with their use. Just because art can manipulate and seduce doesn’t mean you don’t have a moral responsibility in how you use its tools.
BILL POWERS — Do you plan on testing the cannon on your farm in Pennsylvania?
JEFF KOONS — Yes, absolutely. Now I’m making another cannon that will be more toy-like. More like PINO PASCALI? Pascali. I didn’t know how authentic I wanted to go with the cannons so I got all these different toy cannons from souvenir shops when I traveled around with my kids and I bought some on the Internet. I have a picture of one that we scanned and are blowing up to about seventy inches tall. It will be a real toy cannon but with all the bumps and imperfections of the original miniature.
BILL POWERS — Do you think that having three young sons in the house has influenced the types of sculptures you create? If you had three girls instead, would we be looking at dollhouses?
JEFF KOONS — I think so. Everything in life affects you. I would still hope that the imagery would be strong. The boys love going on train rides and we try taking them to all different kinds of events. At the farm we have in Pennsylvania, with the animals we’re around a more agrarian type of culture. There’s a farm show complex in Harrisburg and they always have amazing activities. The kids love it. This weekend we’re going to a carriage auction. We already have one carriage that we like a lot but we want to get more and have them restored. When I was young my grandfather used to have sleighs and carriages on the property and I always liked riding around in them. I just found one that came up for auction and it turns out it belonged to the actor Jack Palance.
BILL POWERS — Was it worrisome that in buying your grandfather’s old farm you were somehow trying to turn the clock back? Often that can be a big letdown.
JEFF KOONS — It wasn’t so much about recapturing the past but to show our kids how large their parameters in life can be, and for them to experience another world. If we go out to Long Island on the weekends it’s really the same kind of experience that they have in the city. It’s not so much about my history, but so that the boys can understand how people live differently and have different associations to the environment. It’s really more about going forward than looking back. We looked for farms all throughout Pennsylvania and we could not find a more beautiful one than my grandfather’s farm. We have a total of one hundred and seventy acres but when it belonged to my grandfather there was only forty. We’d like to make it substantially larger. It was always a horse farm with different trails running down to the river. We’d actually like to let the horses run free.
BILL POWERS — Is there a renewed interest in Americana expressed in your iconography?
JEFF KOONS — It’s the culture I grew up in so it influences me. But I think the work tries to move outward from that, to be objective and have a dialogue with different cultures. Take something like the Liberty Bell: it’s internationally seen as a form of freedom but it’s also invokes a very primal response. The sexualized quality and texture of it, just how chiseled it is. It looks like it’s been through a lot.
BILL POWERS — This is a real departure from your earlier work, like the vacuum cleaners, for example, where you focused on keeping objects looking new forever.
JEFF KOONS — But you have to wonder how much of that was created. The Liberty Bell definitely has a history, but the texture is almost too good to be true. It’s perfect. It’s like the Venus of Willendorf. It invokes a similar type of profound connection. What I love about the Liberty Bell is its continuing function within our culture, which the government has made a strong effort to encourage.
BILL POWERS — Do you imagine your Liberty Bell will function in a similar manner as your steam engine, which hangs from a crane outside LACMA? That it will operate as a sort of clock tower?
JEFF KOONS — I really don’t have an interest in my bell being rung. It’s more about the texture. Although if it were rung, it would probably make a better sound than the real Liberty Bell. The real Liberty Bell is so fragile that you can’t really ring it. But if you did, it would make a sort of thud because of the crack. It doesn’t make a very good sound. I think I’m going to leave the spider inside my Liberty Bell. The spider keeps the clapper from hitting the sides and is very interesting to me.
BILL POWERS — Would you say that this drive for authenticity in your work is new?
JEFF KOONS — It’s always been there but the authenticity was more on the surface of things before. Now it’s been internalized. But what is “authentic” though, really? Any country’s history is not really a true history or a whole concept of the past.
BILL POWERS — Last year in London you showed Cracked Egg, a piece from the Celebration series.
JEFF KOONS — You could say that there’s a sense of loss in that the egg is being cracked open, but something could have also been born and moved on. I think that Cracked Egg functions like Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus. I think people like it so much because they respond to the concept of beauty. In this case the beauty is in the perfection of the finish. There are a lot of eggs in the Celebration work, though. Recently I heard on the radio that a group of eggs is called a clutch of eggs. What a name for eggs!
BILL POWERS — You have said of your Louis XIV and Bob Hope busts that they serve to demonstrate how artwork in the hands of the monarchy or the masses winds up becoming decorative. Is there a way to avoid art from becoming purely decorative?
JEFF KOONS — I think you have to have engagement. You can’t get too lost within yourself, like Louis XIV did. That’s where being engaged comes into play. But as you get older life just has a way of attacking your ability to engage, both biologically and socially. Picasso did a great job of staying engaged. But of course if you put art in the hands of Jeff Koons eventually it will just become a reflection of my ego and become decorative.
BILL POWERS — Wouldn’t some people say that we’ve already crossed that bridge?
JEFF KOONS — Maybe. Yet the type of dialogue and engagement I have, and the kinds of pieces that I’m trying to do, try to fight back at that. But it’s like fighting back death, which is inevitable.
BILL POWERS — You’ve said that a lot of your new work is about mortality.
JEFF KOONS — I think the Monkey Trains series address this dialogue very directly. I also like the idea that they can be symbols of morality as well because the study of apes has revealed that they’re able to show empathy. Which means that the beginnings of morality are, in a sense, almost biological.
BILL POWERS — Do you talk to your sons about what these paintings symbolize?
JEFF KOONS — I think they pick it up a little bit from just being around. But they love art themselves. From the moment Sean wakes up until he goes to bed he’s drawing and painting. He’s an amazing artist. Look at this! Here’s a drawing he did of one of my monkey faces. But he does really complicated ones. My wife Justine is an artist so she’s very involved with them artistically, too
BILL POWERS — You don’t want to overwhelm your family with your artwork by hanging it in the apartment. So what do you have on the walls?
JEFF KOONS — We have Justine’s photographs. We do have other artwork that we can’t hang because our kids are very young. We don’t want the boys to destroy them—put a ball through a canvas or something. But we live with two large Thomas Struth photographs, a museum photograph taken in London of people looking at early Christian art, and one taken at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris of a black Carpeaux sculpture. I’ve lived with these pieces for the last fifteen years. We also have several of Elizabeth Peyton’s works but the one we keep up at the house is of King Ludwig II sitting in a chair. Very classical looking.
BILL POWERS — Does it make a difference to you where your work is presented? Is it more exciting to debut a piece in Europe than in Chelsea?
JEFF KOONS — I showed Cracked Egg in London about four months ago and it was a huge success. That was really nice. I’m excited to participate in the young British scene that Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas are involved in.
BILL POWERS — Do you think the rise of YouTube and the proliferation of other technology will be the death knell for the protection of intellectual property rights?
JEFF KOONS — I would always ask permission to use other people’s things in my work if it felt like I should. But if it seemed unnecessary—if, for example, something was already in the public realm—then I didn’t. But then I got sued. Now I’m extremely cautious.
BILL POWERS — understand that you don’t think twice about scrapping a canvas if it’s not progressing to your liking. Maybe something looks good on the computer screen but doesn’t work in paint?
JEFF KOONS — I like to edit my work a lot, so that if someone comes in contact with it they’ll know that it’s a dependable selection. But if you want to communicate with people the best way is not through the medium. It’s through ideas.
A monograph of Jeff Koons’ work is now available (Taschen, 2007).
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